Emerging Technologies

3 ways science can inform good leadership

Richard J. Davidson
William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison
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Emerging Technologies

This article is published in collaboration with Huffington Post.

We’ve all had “those days” at work where nearly everything seems to go awry. From that traffic jam delaying your first meeting to opening an inbox full of bad news, our patience and well-being are tested more often than we’d like.

For managers and leaders, reactions to these challenges can set the tone for the rest of the workplace. Add on to this the slew of distractions we face, which are estimated to cost U.S. workplaces billions of dollars each year, and it’s amazing we get anything done!

As a neuroscientist who studies people of all ages and walks of life, I’ve gathered insights over the decades that can alleviate distraction, dissatisfaction and suffering, especially for people at work, including executives and leaders. It’s become clear the workplace deeply shapes our well-being — it’s the place many of us spend the majority of our days and lives.

So how can we take insights from science to inform well-being in the workplace, particularly for leaders? This is the exact topic New York Times reporter and author David Gelles and workplace mindfulness expert Golbie Kamarei and I plan to tackle during a free webcast at this year’s Mindful Leadership Summit.

151103-Experts vs novices meditation brain leadership PNAS

Brain activation in meditation vs resting state, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)

To begin, here are three strategies for leaders and managers to consider:

Focus and Presence

I gave a talk recently where a member of the audience asked how we can avoid feeling overwhelmed by the inundation of information and data in our personal and professional lives — a great question I know psychology and science can begin to shed light on. The reality, I answered, is that technology is neither going away nor slowing down any time soon. Information will continue to overwhelm us, likely in record amounts we’ve never seen before. But how we relate to it, mentally and physically, matters greatly.

For instance, the moment we feel our phones vibrate inside our pockets, our impulse often drives us to take it out immediately and to interrupt the task at hand. Of course, this may be necessary if you’re waiting to hear from someone or are on call; however, for the vast majority of us, especially at work, research shows it can take people up to 23 minutes to rebound from distractions — for the person to truly dive back into what he or she was originally focused on.

From neuroscience research, we know that simple exercises such as mindfulness meditation and focusing on the breath can increase focus and strengthen connections in the brain related to executive function and goal-directed behavior (aka dedicating that deep focus needed to wrap up that project). We also know that multitasking is a myth, so closing your email and silencing notifications while dedicating yourself to the task at hand will pay off and can enable you to be more focused and to think more clearly about important decisions for your team.


The most common challenge I hear about from companies participating in our workplace curriculum is how leaders — and any employee for that matter — can be physically present, but mentally absent from the conversation or task at hand. This can be especially dangerous for leaders, who set the tone for interactions and group gatherings.

If leaders are bent over their smart phones rather than paying attention to an employee presenting in front of them, how can they possibly make the most informed decision about the topic being discussed? How can they expect their employees to feel heard or valued? But even less overt forms of distraction, such as seeming to pay attention but having your mind on the next meeting, will be felt by those around you.

Being truly present — feeling yourself in your seat, noticing your breath, being aware of emotions as they arise and focusing on listening and the body cues of those around you — can improve quality interactions in the workplace.

I would argue to take this a step further and consider not only listening, but listening with compassion. We’re just beginning to understand how the brain works, but there’searly evidence suggesting that you can train yourself to become more compassionate, and that such training alters activity in the brain and your ability to behave altruistically toward others. This centers around the idea that everyone shares the wish to be happy and avoid suffering. I’ve seen compassionate leaders in action, and there’s a noticeable difference in how members of their teams engage with one another.

Emotionally-Balanced Decision Making

At an interpersonal level, office politics and leadership dynamics can affect our stress and well-being. You’re likely aware of the negative effects of stress, but it’s also been known to shape the brain in key areas, including the amygdala (important for negative emotions such as anger and fear) and the prefrontal cortex (influencing self control and decision-making). When our brains are in “reactive” mode or are on the defense, our interactions with others are at risk of coming from a place of anger.

Studies, including one from our lab, are beginning to unearth how these relationships work, but what we know so far points to a relationship between activation of the prefrontal cortex and emotion regulation. Creating distance between yourself and your emotions by noticing them can help with this and can be achieved through mindful awareness and practice.

Taking time to partake in stress-reducing practices such as physical exercise, stretching, meditation and journaling (to name a few) can help create the space needed to make decisions that are not only thought through, but also respectful and coming from a place of emotional balance.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., is a leading expert on the study of emotions and how they affect well-being.

Image: A Businesswoman is silhouetted as she makes her way under the Arche de la Defense, in the financial district west of Paris. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann. 

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